As mentioned in a comment on my Braxton review, that music was compiled in 2008 on the Complete Arista Recordings as a digital release. This record was briefly available in 2002 on Get Back Records as a CD release but has otherwise been out of print – even though Amazon claims a 2009 re-release on vinyl, it has been ‘out of stock’ every time I have checked. I missed out on grabbing the CD – I saw it, waited a bit and then … it was gone. So the versions in my collection are digitized from vinyl … but as I started writing this I discovered something … the album is available on iTunes for $9.99! Let’s take a look:
Summary: The Art Ensemble of Chicago was the spearhead group of the ‘AACM’, which is the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, a Chicago based organization that was comprised of notable avant-garde musicians of the 1960s. The group initially consisted of Lester Bowie on trumpet, Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman on saxophones and assorted reeds, and bassist Malachi Favors. Foumoudou Don Moye would join in 1970 and the group would dominate the avant-garde jazz scene for music of the next two decades.
During 1969 the quartet produced more than a half dozen album releases, the most critically acclaimed of which are ‘A Jackson in Your House’ and ‘Live in Paris’. All of these recordings established a style and sound for the group that included tons of instrumentation spread amongst the four musicians, chanting (and face paint and costumes in live performances) and remarkable shifts between wild improvisation and gorgeous themes. But for me, the best of these recordings has always been a two-part album Reese and the Smooth Ones. There are only two songs here – actually one song divided to fit on two sides of a record – so let’s take a look.
Reese/The Smooth Ones Part I: – starts off with a fairly clear statement of the theme as a cohesive harmonic element with a contrapuntal bass backing before switching to a trumpet statement of an offset melody playing against the original theme. Then within a minute or so something happens – we get the trumpet coming in to restate, but suddenly all of these ‘other’ wind instruments are playing in a discordant ensemble that pulsates the rhythm and switches the melody to the reeds and what was a pleasant and jazzy lead becomes a haunting and very folksy theme.
I have no idea where Reese ends and The Smooth Ones begins or even if it happens, but I do know that the song continues to evolve organically over the course of twenty minutes before fading out. I remember hearing it for the first time more than 35 years ago and being disappointed that it ended just as it was really starting to blow up. Little did I know …
Reese/The Smooth Ones Part II: – whereas the first part began with a structured statement and a clear beginning, with the second part we are launched headlong into the midst of an evolving work in progress. I was initially concerned that the first part ended before we heard everything the group had to offer … but I shouldn’t have worried, as that was exactly what the second side of the album was for!
The distinction made between Reese and The Smooth Ones is that Reese was composed by Roscoe Mitchell and The Smooth Ones by Lester Bowie. Structurally that amounts to who is leading the proceedings and which themes and harmonic elements are in use, but it all flows together so nicely it is difficult to separate these into two compositions. To me that is part of the beauty of the Art Ensemble of Chicago.
Choice Track (and why): “Reese/The Smooth Ones Part I” – in spite of the absolute chaos and intensity that unleashes from the very first moments and the wonderful tapping rhythm at the end, it is the sweet, breathy melodies in Part 1 that always have me saying ‘yeah’ along with Lester Bowie. Of course, this is ultimately a 40+ minute song chopped in half, so you can’t really go wrong.
You Might Love This If: You are not immediately scared off by the thought of a 41 minute song or music that is dissonant and occasionally harsh. Because once you get past all of that you ultimately have some gorgeous quartet jazz played at the very highest level.
Oh, and one odd thing that I really love is the familiar pop and hiss of the vinyl during one of the very quiet sections where there is just a breathy saxophone playing and silence. Before ripping to MP3 I always carried this album on tape (not surprisingly, with Anthony Braxton on the other size of the 90-minute cassette), so those sounds have been part of the music for me for nearly 35 years.
Where to Buy: iTunes – $9.99
Here is a YouTube video featuring the Art Ensemble in the 1980s … not the same period as this, but the AEC was a visual experience to behold … :
And here is the entire first album side :